Many writers and performers have found inspiration in the Great American Road Trip. On the Road. Easy Rider. Thelma & Louise. But for me, nothing captures the joy of exploring the open road quite like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
On July 30, 2023, the actor and comedian behind Pee-wee, Paul Reubens, died of cancer. In the days since, many tributes have celebrated how Pee-wee showed his fans that it’s okay to be weird, to be silly, to be curious—an ethos that we share at Atlas Obscura.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the 1985 movie that mixes the cult campiness of John Waters with the unbridled whimsy of Saturday-morning cartoons. In search of his stolen bicycle, Pee-wee hitches a ride with a truck-driving ghost, watches the sunrise from inside a giant T. rex, dances with a biker gang, and makes a cameo in a Twisted Sister music video.
In summer 2021, I set off on my own cross-country road trip, from upstate New York to Santa Monica. I’d be lying if I said my journey wasn’t inspired in part by Pee-wee’s adventure through the country’s haunted, weird, and forgotten places. Along the way, I visited a community of Spiritualists, a state fair with a giant cow sculpted from butter, and a diner that had its own massive dinosaurs outside.
To honor Reubens and the spirit his character captured, it’s only fitting to embark on your own adventure. Here are some spots that celebrate the wonder and whimsy of Pee-wee Herman. So hop in the car (or on your cherry-red bike), cue up The Champs’ Tequila, and explore the weird, wonderful corners of America. As Pee-wee once said, “That ol’ highway’s a-calling.”